Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

ISIS 101

An introductory note: In a few days Anna I will be traveling out of state where I will be delivering several lectures in a bucolic mountain setting.  In order to make best use of my time, I've turned one of the lectures - "The rise of ISIS" - into this week's blog essay.  If things work out as planned, next week's essay will be based on one of the other lectures - "Israel, the Middle East and the 2016 Presidential Election."

ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, stunned the global community in 2014 when it poured over the Syrian border into Iraq. Born amid the chaos of the Syrian Civil War, and post-invasion Iraq, ISIS represents an enormous challenge to the U.S. and world powers who seek to stop the spread of its virulent, terrifying and homicidal form of Islamic extremism. As America and its allies have begun tightening the noose on areas that ISIS controls, it has begun exporting terrorists and terrorism to Europe and by proxy, even to America. But even if America and its allies could defeat ISIS militarily, it would not, in all likelihood end the phenomenon of jihadism. Its rampage has been marked by war crimes which include the summary execution of battlefield prisoners including Muslims deemed unholy, the wholesale slaughter of civilians and genocidal policies towards ethnic minorities. Combating ISIS will be a focal point for the U.S. and its allies for years to come.

Like most contemporary jihadi groups, ISIS has its roots in Afghanistan. In the late 1980s, thousands of young Arab men – with the backing of countries like the U.S. and Saudi Arabia – flocked to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union. These men, who became known as “Afghan Arabs,” did not play much of a role in defeating the Soviet Union, but they did foster a myth, and in time, that myth would change the world.  A Jordanian thug, Musab al-Zarqawi (the bearded fellow in the photo), also known as “al-Garhib” – the stranger –was one of those who went to Afghanistan. Upon returning to Jordan in 1992, he was arrested. While serving time in a Jordanian prison he came in contact with the Islamic scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who would do much to shape his views and theology. Zarqawi became more religious under Maqdisi’s guidance, praying and memorizing the Quran. He also started to attract other prisoners, and fellow inmates started referring to him and his companions as the takfirisi - those who excommunicate - for the way they almost reflexively excommunicated anyone who disagreed with them.

When he was pardoned along with several other prisoners in 1999, he left the country, returning to Afghanistan, where he quickly came into contact with a growing al-Qaeda franchise. Initially, al-Qaeda was mistrustful of Zarqawi. He seemed overly focused on fighting Shi’a instead of the corrupt Sunni regimes and the U.S., which were al-Qaeda’s two primary targets. Eventually, al-Qaeda agreed to support a separate training camp for Zarqawi in Afghanistan that would recruit Palestinians and Jordanians. But it did not invite him to join the organization, and Zarqawi did not ask.  After the September 11 attacks, Zarqawi fled first to Iran, eventually making his way to Iraq. In less than two weeks, Zarqawi had all but driven the UN out of Iraq and sparked a civil war between the country’s Shi’a and Sunni populations. In February 2004, Zarqawi officially applied to join al-Qaeda. In October, al-Qaeda accepted his request. But almost immediately, issues arose. Bin Laden and his deputy, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri wanted Zarqawi to tone down the violence, particularly when it came to the videos showing beheadings of so-called heretics. Fighting U.S. soldiers was one thing – killing Iraqi Shi’a was another. On June 7, 2006, a pair of U.S. jets flattened the house where Zarqawi was holding a meeting, killing him and five others.

In October 2006, Zarqawi’s group announced the establishment of an Islamic state, proclaiming that a man by the name of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was now the Amir al-mu-minin - the "Commander of the Faithful" - the caliph or absolute leader of the Islamic state.  Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Ayyub al-Masri was convinced that the Mahdi - the Messiah - was about to return and he wanted a state in place for the apocalyptic battle that some believe will happen at the end of time. In his rush to prepare for the impending apocalypse, Masri announced the state and its commander – Abu Omar al-Baghdadi – before he had either. There was not a state, just al-Qaeda’s old organization in Iraq, and no one by the name of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. By late 2009, it looked as though the group had all but disappeared. The difference between al-Qaeda and ISIS can be clearly seen in this putting of the cart before the horse.

Then came the Arab Spring. Many of the same issues that animated those protesters would help fuel recruiting for the Islamic state in 2012 and 2013. Five years after the uprisings of 2011, little seems to have improved across the Arab world. There is still high unemployment and a great deal of hopelessness. If anything, it is even worse now, as the Arab Spring's artificially raised people’s expectations, implicitly promising that, if they could only get rid of their corrupt leaders, their daily lives would change for the better. But that has not happened, and the comedown has been difficult.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issued his first public statement as the head of the Islamic state in early May 2011. At the time, little was known about him. Only 38 years old when elected to head the Islamic state, Abu Bakr’s real name was Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri. Baghdadi (at left) earned a degree in Quranic studies, graduating from the University of Baghdad in 1996. Three years later, he finished a master’s degree and decided to pursue doctoral studies. But in February 2004, less than a year after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Baghdadi was arrested and placed in the U.S.-run Camp Bucca in southern Iraq where he was held for ten months as a “civilian detainee.” (Many scholars refer to Camp Bucca as “the incubator” from which many ISIS leaders and fighters were hatched. In 2007, Baghdadi successfully defended his doctoral dissertation, and began to move up the ranks of what was now being called, at least internally, the Islamic State. When Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri were killed in April 2010, the Islamic state needed to find a new leader. The Islamic state’s consultative council was made up of 11 members. Because they were being hunted by the U.S. military, they could not meet in person. Instead, they relied on a clandestine network of couriers to deliver messages to one another. One member of the council, a former colonel in the Iraqi army, used this to his advantage, writing to each of the members of the council to tell them that everyone else had already agreed to support Baghdadi as the new leader. When the votes were counted, Baghdadi had been elected by a 9-2 margin.

By the end of 2011 as fighting in Syria between Assad’s troops and protesters worsened, al Baghdadi sent a small contingent of fighters across the border. This group, which he called Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, was commanded by one of his deputies named Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani.   But, much in the same way Baghdadi in Iraq had quietly defied al-Qaeda’s orders from Pakistan and Afghanistan, Jawlani began ignoring his boss. Part of the conflict was the revenue from oil that was being smuggled out of Syria. But there was also a strategic gulf between the two former allies. Jawlani, siding more with the local fighters in Syria, wanted to prioritize popular support in a way that the Islamic state never had in Iraq. Baghdadi disagreed and throughout 2012 and early 2013, the two leaders conducted a slow-moving argument on the best way forward. Finally, in April 2013, fed up with Jawlani’s reluctance to overtly recognize Baghdadi as his commander and the Nusra Front as part of the Islamic state, Baghdadi went public.

On April 9, 2013, Baghdadi released an audio message announcing the formation of a new entity, which he called the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. In his message Baghdadi explained that both Jawlani and the Nusra Front were part of the Islamic State, but that in the future only the name ISIS would be used. Jawlani strongly disagreed and pledged his loyalty to Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s successor as head of al-Qaeda. The split was now out in the open.

Baghdadi’s next move was to send more ISIS fighters into Syria, this time to fight both Assad’s government as well as their former allies in the Nusra Front.

Throughout the summer of 2014 Baghdadi continued to direct fighters to Syria, making good on his public claim of creating an Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham.

ISIS has, at times, in its past, been affiliated with al-Qaeda. But, since its inception, the group has had this different approach with different priorities. Where al-Qaeda focused on defeating the West and corrupt Arab regimes as a way to establish a caliphate, ISIS has concentrated its energies on killing Shi’a Muslims, whom it considers heretics. Al-Qaeda preferred a bottom-up approach, attempting to build popular support before announcing its rule, while ISIS has gone the other direction, relying on a top-down approach: as mentioned in the paragraph above, it announced the caliphate as a way of attracting followers.

Another way in which al-Qaeda and ISIS differ is in their interpretation and implementation of the Islamic concept of al-wala’ wa-l-bara, or "association and disassociation." This is the idea of associating with true Muslims and disassociating with everyone else. Both ISIS and al-Qaeda see this as a key concept, but they differ in their interpretation.

Isis takes a hard line view, disassociating from everyone who is not a “true” believer. This is one of the reasons, along with Zarqawi’s continued influence on ISIS thinking, for the emphasis on attacking Shi’a Muslims. Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, practices a more situational approach to al-wala’ wa-l-bara, disassociating from non-believing Muslims in ideal circumstances but otherwise trying to play down potential divisions within the Islamic community in order to focus on attacking the U.S. and what it sees as corrupt Arab governments.

On February 2, 2014, al-Qaeda renounced any connection with ISIS, saying it could not be held responsible for any of ISIS’ actions.

On June 9, 2014, ISIS made a major push on the battlefield – taking Mosul in northern Iraq. Two days later and nearly 125 miles away it took Saddam Hussein’s home-town of Tikrit. ISIS continued its expansion, pushing toward the border with Syria, taking over large chunks of territory as the Iraqi army seemed to disintegrate in its path. ISIS even made a concentrated push for the small village of Dabiq, just north of Aleppo in Syria.

Dabiq was more of a theological target than a military one. According to an Islamic prophecy, the Day of Judgment is supposed to come after Muslims defeat a Western army at Dabiq. For ISIS, taking the town was a way to hurry on the apocalypse.

As of June 29, 2014, ISIS announced a caliphate that would be known as the Islamic State. This was the first time in nearly 100 years, since Ataturk abolished the Ottoman caliphate in 1924, that there had been this form of Islamic government. ISIS, of course, was not modeling itself after this more contemporary version, which it considered decadent and un-Islamic. In calling itself a caliphate, ISIS was hearkening back to the beginning of Islam and the rule of Muhammad’s first four successors, who are known collectively as the rashidun, or the rightly guided caliphs.  In the immediate aftermath of ISIS’ declaration of a caliphate, its online fan base cheered and expanded. ISIS’ broader message of associating with true Muslims and disassociating from everyone else has been part of the group's driving ideology since the days of Zarqawi.

What of ISIS's spot within the Muslim catechism?

 ISIS and its members adhere to a strict literalist interpretation of the texts of the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. ISIS is a jihadi* group because it believes in using violence to achieve its means. It is a salafi** group because it believes the Muslim community has lost its way and grown weak and divided. The only way to correct this drift is a return to the “pious forefathers,” hence the emphasis on a literal reading of the Quran and the sayings of the prophet Muhamad.

(*Meaning "struggle" or "to strive," Jihad denotes a Muslim's duty toward religious practice amid struggle. The term can refer to both spiritual and religious struggle. **Derived from salaf, meaning "predecessors," Salifis are an ultraconservative branch of Sunni Islam aimed at returning to the ancient “orthodox” teachings of Islam. Although the term salaf has appeared in Islamic religious scholarship for centuries, Salafism started as a reform-oriented movement in the 19th and 20th centuries, and was particularly Egypt-centric. It should be noted that not all salafi groups believe in violence as a means to an end, only jihadi-salafi groups do. What differentiates al-Qaeda from ISIS is the latter’s hard line approach. Both read the same texts and use the same means of Jihad to achieve their goals and yet they are two separate groups with two different styles.

ISIS has both a slick English language magazine called Dabiq, and an impressive online presence that allows it to reach recruits that al-Qaeda never had. Al-Qaeda relied on a personal link, someone to connect an individual in the West with a franchise in the Middle East or Southeast Asia. When not primarily addressing a Western audience, ISIS has shown itself quite skilled in using poetry and jihadi anthems to attract recruits from around the Arab world. It is in verse that militants most clearly articulate the fantasy of jihad.

In early July 2014, ISIS seized one of the largest oilfields in Syria near the town of Homs, and later that month it overran a Syrian military base in Raqqa. In August, ISIS fighters massacred thousands of Yazidi men, taking the women as slaves, in and around Sinjar in northern Iraq.

On August 8, 2014, President Obama authorized air strikes against ISIS targets. Weeks later, the UK and France followed suit by launching their first air strikes against ISIS targets. Despite the number of air strikes since the U.S. and its allies began bombing in 2014, ISIS seems largely unfazed. They continue to receive money from oil that they are able to smuggle out of Iraq and Syria as well as from kidnappings, thefts and the contributions of a sizeable number of oil billionaires from places like Qatar and Saudi Arabia.  

In addition to the caliphate in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has also announced other affiliate groups through the Middle East:

In Egypt a group calling itself Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis pledged loyalty to Baghdadi in late 2014.

A similar dynamic has played out in Libya.  The pattern is repeating itself in Yemen, and to a lesser extent, in Saudi Arabia.  In Yemen, as in Iraq, and elsewhere, many of these attacks have targeted Shi’a mosques in Sanaa.

Boko Haram in Nigeria has also pledged allegiance to ISIS. Isis has also announced provinces in Algeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The goals appears to be to establish these provinces as outposts, and then build them to make the reality match the rhetoric.

The rise of ISIS has presented the U.S. and the international community with a number of security challenges. Chief among these has been the flood of refugees who have fled the war in Syria as well as ISIS’ military advances in the region. Since the start of the conflict, Turkey has hosted nearly 2 million refugees and another 1.5 million have crossed into Jordan and Lebanon.

As a result, in the last year-and-a-half, more than half a million-and-a-quarter refugees crossed the Mediterranean on their way to Europe, often paying smugglers to ferry them to Europe.

ISIS has responded to the refugee crisis by releasing several videos designed to encourage refugees to return to ISIS-controlled territory. There have also been reports, although largely unconfirmed, that ISIS has attempted to smuggle fighters into Europe along with the wave of refugees. Although not an impossible scenario, this is not a tactic ISIS has prioritized up to this point. In a sense, they don't need to smuggle fighters into Europe. According to a New York Times data-basis, ISIS has either inspired or directed attacks in 11 Western countries, including the U.S., the UK, Canada, Australia, France and Germany. ISIS is eager for its supporters to self-radicalize.   This is a relatively new phenomenon and ISIS has utilized both traditional offerings such as magazines and videos as well as social media to reach supporters in Western countries. What remains unclear is how monolithic of a group ISIS is, and how much command-and-control, the group has over various plots in different countries.

ISIS has also seemed determined to destroy any historical artifact it deems idolatrous. In early October 2015, ISIS destroyed the iconic nearly 2,000 year-old Arch of Triumph in Palmyra, Syria. UNESCO, the UN heritage agency, and others, have described ISIS’ destructive actions as “war crimes.” But, as with other challenges, Western governments have been unable to do much to reduce the threat to historic sites under ISIS’ control.

What policy options are available to the U.S. and its allies - both Muslim and non-Muslim - in the fight against ISIS?

Several factors contributed to ISIS gaining a foothold in Iraq and Syria, but two stand out: The first was the weakness of the Iraqi military – which the U.S. funded and equipped for years – in the face of ISIS assaults. The second contributing factor was U.S. reluctance to return to Iraq. In 2013 and much of 2014, as ISIS was making gains and taking territory, the U.S. watched and waited. Some of the usual methods for dealing with Jihadist statelets might have worked early on in Syria and Iraq, but ISIS is now too entrenched for quick solutions.

The U.S. is unwilling to commit ground troops to Iraq. Instead, the Obama administration has opted for air strikes and training rebel groups, which it hopes will be able “to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIS.” But both of these approaches have serious drawbacks. Air strikes can weaken ISIS targets, but on their own, they cannot defeat ISIS. The same is true for U.S.-trained rebel groups. They may be able to erode some of ISIS’ hold on territory, but ultimately they will be unable to decisively roll ISIS back.

There are serious problems with using proxies in the fight against ISIS. The U.S. might be able to train and equip them, but it cannot control them. Once these groups enter the battlefield, they will pursue their own objectives.

The U.S. has also backed Kurdish fighters who, in November 2015, pushed on the Iraqi town of Sinjar in an attempt to split ISIS’ territory in two by taking the city and cutting off the supply line that ran through it. The U.S., however, is constrained here as well in that it does not want the Kurds to become so strong that they can form an independent state. Current U.S. policy seeks to ensure the territorial integrity of Iraq – even as the Kurds have set up a de facto state – which makes support of the Kurds against ISIS a delicate balancing act.

The U.S. is also struggling to limit ISIS’ finances, partly by working with Turkey and others to prevent oil smuggling. So far, this initiative’s impact has been limited.

There is no silver bullet to the problem that ISIS presents. The group did not arise overnight and it will not be defeated overnight. The U.S. and its coalition partners have been bombing for over a year and while it is true that ISIS now controls considerably less territory than it did when the bombing campaign began, the reach of its terrorist activities has grown.  Conquering ISIS - and whatever comes next - is not as simple as " . . . bombing the sh***t out of 'em," as more than one presidential candidate has suggested.  Unlike the Germans, Italians and Japanese of old, ISIS does not have a capitol, a legislature, a mint or a stationary military headquarters.  It is a fluid, moveable army; here today and gone tomorrow.  Much of its organizational structure - such as it is -  exists in the cyber cloud . . . which is not susceptible to the kinds of military assaults which have been employed in past generations.

Air strikes and support for various groups on the ground are, at best, a holding strategy, designed to prevent ISIS from further growing. But even this modest goal may be too much for the current policy. Still, there appears to be few other appealing options on the table.

It is politics, economics and diplomacy which will eventually put ISIS into a coma, not military might.

Copyright©2016 Kurt F. Stone